There is still a question of whether the project will go forward at all. The city's in a chicken-and-egg situation — the project would have to be approved by voters before it could move forward, but some big decisions about where it would be and what other uses might be installed there, along with a schematic plan of what the facility might look like are, according to staff, details to iron out before taking the matter to voters. The project would have to go before voters because the city would likely need to put out a bond measure to come up with the $30 million to cover the first $20 million in cash Arrillaga has made a condition of his gift, and an expected $10 million in soft costs.
Where to put a new main library was the question at hand during three public meetings held in December, January and February, and during the last of those, staff reported, there was no clear consensus on which of two proposed sites was preferred. In the earlier meetings, there was a clear preference for the current site from the public, or sentiment expressed that attendees didn't have enough information to vote. Relocating the library to Laurel Street, away from its current Alma Street site, could save library costs during construction since the existing one could continue in place without interruption, staff said. It would also leave intact the current childcare center, a major concern of the center's parents in earlier discussions.
Starting the hearing on the matter after 11 p.m., the council agreed to hold the discussion at a later date, but asked staff to address some of the concerns raised about the process, including opening up for debate whether the proposal would move forward at all. The council dedicates the bulk of its June meeting time to ironing out the city budget, meaning the matter may have to wait before it can make it back on the agenda.
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton told staff and the city manager to meet to address concerns raised about the public feedback process.
Staff presented the case that time is of the essence because building costs continue to escalate, and argued that was why discussions of affordable housing should be separated from the main library project. Staff also said they felt that having a large community meeting room as part of the project, which could double as a new City Council chambers, should be included.
Meanwhile, work on the city's needs assessment for the Belle Haven Library continues. The final report is expected to be presented publicly in June, according to staff.
One of the concerns was that public feedback collected in past processes for the study were not factored into staff recommendations. People said they didn't want the new library site along Laurel Street.
In public comments, Susan Stimson said the proposed project was a cart-before-the-horse situation and that the process was "fraudulent" because the public preference for the current site was discounted. She added that the "public input sessions are checking a box" without giving full consideration to the public's preferences.
"A gift that ends up costing you is not a gift," said Sue Connelly, urging the council to delay its decision and asserting it didn't have complete information.
Some also spoke in favor of the new library. Jacqui Cebrian, former library commissioner pointed to expanding enrollment in Menlo Park schools and the need for an expanded teen area at the library. Plus, she added, it's important in such an expensive area to live to have places and opportunities for people to go and do things for free. Monica Corman, president of the Menlo Park Library Foundation, said she felt the process had been inclusive and urged the council to move forward with the proposed new library and make good on Arrillaga's offer, which would reduce the city's financial obligations compared with bearing the full cost of a new library.
The debate over a new library also raises the possibility of affordable housing construction on the city's Burgess Park civic center campus. Housing commissioners Karen Grove and Meg McGraw-Scherer told the council that they supported the construction of affordable housing on the Burgess Park site, adjacent to or nearby a new library.
Members of the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council Daniel Valverde and Leora Ross said they wanted to see the city prioritize the construction of affordable housing with the new library proposal.
"Menlo Park has been a segregated and divided city," Valverde said. "It has a moral obligation to build housing outside of Belle Haven."
Building affordable housing somewhere else in Menlo Park than Belle Haven would also mean that lower-income kids could also go to school in one of the city's higher-performing districts, pointed out commenter Eddy Rodriguez. "You're not just providing housing, you're providing a better future," he said.
Andrew Boone, of East Palo Alto, said the library's current site on Alma Street would be "perfect" for affordable apartments. "You could literally walk across the street to get on Caltrain from that site," he said.
This story contains 952 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.